Category Archives: Critiques & Reviews

Great Courses from the Great Courses® | The Big Questions of Philosophy

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This course of 36 lectures is taught by Professor David Kyle Johnson of King’s College. It deals with the most perplexing ideas in philosophy, those which have yet to yield any definitive answers to our species’ inquiry.

From the start on how we do philosophy and what it is, leading up to the biggest question of all on the meaning of life, this course is bound to at some point touch on matters many will find unsettling.

This includes matters of the existence of the soul, of the existence of minds, and even the existence of persons as real, discrete things existing ‘out there’ in the world.

The matters of free will, of justice, of what makes our actions moral and defines the Good, are all discussed in as much detail as allowable for the roughly 30 minute lectures.

These lectures offer, at best, tentative answers and remaining problems to keep you thinking about the best arguments offered for them to date.

A warning: If you are frightened by the prospect of having your beliefs on these questions called into at least some doubt, then avoid this course.

I personally found the lessons on morality, personal identity and the nature of government unsettling in parts, but in a good way, and have since revised my prior social and political views in light of the questions raised. This is as it should be.

In my view, dogmatic adherence to any ideology or a fixed set of conclusions is reactionary and dangerous, and this course is a terrific way to overcome that.

I found this course enjoyable and enlightening, and if you are into asking questions without cheap, easy, and simplistic answers, then this course is for you.

Course Review | Philosophy of Religion, by Prof. James Hall, Ph.D.

This course consisting of 36 lectures is a fairly comprehensive set of lessons, 30 minutes or so each, dealing with the conceptual intricacies of what could be called Ethical Monotheism, the sort of thinking involved in many sects of the Abrahamic religions of the West and Middle-East. For considerations of lecture time much of the discussion centers around Christian thought.

Topics discussed include the ideas of God as a concept, the notion of transcendence, atheistic arguments from evil, free will theodicies, paradigms, language games, and arguments alleged to definitively demonstrate the existence of the divine as well as those alleged to definitively disprove the same.

Professor Hall from the very beginning lays his own personal leanings and background on the proverbial table, and throughout these lectures shows both commendable honesty and heroic attempts to be objective in his presentation of the material.

He has a good teaching style, with a touch of humor and lots of good analogies and examples in the lessons. I came away from this course impressed by his professionalism as an instructor, but could not help but notice the tendency for special pleading (not his, BTW, but that inherent in the field of philosophy of religion) as regards the argumentation’s use in apologetics in debates I’ve seen or listened to.

That mainly applies to the various theodicies and other theistic arguments, and in much talk of paradigms and language games, though Hall avoided any firm conclusions of his own on these, merely noting the Scottish verdict of “not proved” for the arguments both pro and con the divine.

I enjoyed this course for the conceptual tools it offered, for Hall’s nonjudgmental take on the whole thing, and for the spurring it gave to explore the subject further.

I do think that the arguments discussed could bear updating to account for current usage by modern apologists and the same for the rebuttals made by modern atheists, but much of the subject matter is still relevant and timely, needing only minor tweaks for present day debates and discourse.

In short, I enjoyed this, and there are parts I’ll definitely revisit in future. This course is well worth what I paid for it.

I give this course five tentacles for eldritch philosophical coolness.

Course Review | The Philosopher’s Toolkit, by Prof. Patrick Grim

Think (Photo credit: aftab.)

I’ve recently finished viewing and taking notes from this course, taught by Professor Patrick Grim of State University of New York(SUNY) at Stony Brook, who does a good job of conveying the lessons in this 24 lecture series from the Teaching Company.

The course is about both how we do think, and how we can do it better, more clearly, smarter, not harder, though there will be work involved in getting there. It involves both the descriptive and the normative dimensions of human thought.

The toolkit is a set of techniques for using logical thinking, quick rules of thumb for thinking that can work well and reliably in the right context, and methods for easier problem-solving that are remarkably effective when put into practice.

The lessons of cognitive psychology, philosophy, and the methods of the great thinkers throughout history, those who made thinking their very life’s business, are reviewed, described, explained, and put to use in a series of entertaining and enlightening presentations.

This course uses scientific data to ground the lessons, and takes a largely philosophical approach to rigorous thinking, hardly an inconsistency, as the instructor does a good job of blending the two together.

The first lecture, ‘How We Think and How To Think Better,’ lays the groundwork for the course, “to develop a set of conceptual skills that is useful in all kinds of thinking.”

‘Cool Rationality and Hot Thought,’ discusses the balance that is needed in thinking, not pure logic and not blind emotion, but a mix of the two working together, with logic working best for long-term decisions, and emotions acting as a quick method for immediate, short-term decisions when logic would be too slow to be of use.

Lecture 3, ‘The Strategy of Visualization,’ is just what it says, a series of techniques for better harnessing something that many of us are already good at, imagination, as a tool for solving puzzles, paradoxes, and problems. A completely non-mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem is demonstrated.

English: Animated geometric proof of the Pytha...
English: Animated geometric proof of the Pythagoras theorem, for reference to proof see Pythagorean Theorem at Cut the Knot Deutsch: Ein animierter, geometrische Beweis für den Satz des Pythagoras Esperanto: Movbilda pruvo de la teoremo de Pitagoro Français : Animation présentant une démonstration géométrique du théorème de Pythagore Português: Prova geométrica animada do Teorema de Pitágoras (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Visualizing Concepts and Propositions,’ deals with the atoms of thought — concepts we have of things — and the propositions, the joining together of concepts into statements. The uses and dangers of categorizing concepts of things are discussed, as is the use of diagrams as a tool to make easier use of logical statements.

‘The Power of Thought Experiments,’ illustrates the use of the ideas in the previous two lectures for using the imagination as a tool for effective, real-world problem solving.

Lecture 6, ‘Thinking Like Aristotle,’ discusses the brilliant idea of seeing patterns in human thought, and the concept of making the whole messy process better, more accurate, quicker, even easier. Aristotle’s classical Square of Opposition is explained, making conceptualizing his logic even easier in this graphic layout.

‘Ironclad, Airtight Validity,’ is about just that, the notion that the conclusion of a set of statements must be true if the logic is valid in the strongest sense and the premises are true. Diagrams are used to explain the workings of syllogisms, arguments with two premises and a conclusion, as well as the limits of deductive arguments.

Particularly useful is lecture no.8, ‘Thinking Outside the Box,’ which is less a of lecture and more of a hands-on workshop for creative thinking, and one is loads of fun as well.

Next, ‘The Flow of Argument,’ makes use of a more complex, less rigorously certain form of argument using everyday reasoning, but which is nonetheless useful for telling us things we can be confident in knowing even without airtight validity. The flow diagram is introduced, and how the argument moves from statement to statement can be followed and understood.

‘Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart,’ deals with quick rules of thumb for thinking, limited, not infallible, but useful and in a pinch better than complete calculations in many situations. Caveats are given for these occasions when the heuristics may not reliably apply. The pros and cons of rational calculation and ‘going with your gut’ are discussed in detail.

The humorously titled lecture,‘Why We Make Misteaks’ deals with systematic error in human thinking and perception, bias and and better means of dealing with the different sorts of bias by making ourselves more aware of and looking out for them.

‘Rational Discussion in a Polarized Context,’ lecture 12, discusses the process of polarization and the phenomenon of Kripkean dogmatism on issues even the most otherwise rational individuals may feel strongly on, as well as suggestions for dealing with it.

Note that the effectiveness of those suggestions is not guaranteed — unfortunately, this is a philosophy course dealing with rationality in the real world, not wizardry lessons at Hogwarts!

‘Rhetoric versus Rationality,’ deals with the history of rhetoric, its dark side, the ethics of argument, rhetoric’s positive aspects, and an opportunity to graph the flow of argument with an example of a discussion between two people using techniques from lesson 9.

‘Bogus Arguments and How to Defuse Them,’ defines and describes the use of logical fallacies — errors in reasoning which undermine arguments — and how to immunize oneself against them by noting them in use and calling them out when they are.

Lecture 15, ‘The Great Debate’ is an opportunity to use the two previous lessons to graph the arguments in a live mock debate on democracy between a Mr. McFirst and a Ms. O’Second, to determine what is being argued, how, how effectively, and what logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks are in play.

The 16th lecture, ‘Outwitting the Advertiser,’ discusses deceptive advertising, and the psychological tricks advertisers use to sell their stuff, the ways they push our buttons and exploit our thinking to their advantage, and how to recognize when this is happening.

No. 17 & 18 ‘Putting a Spin on Statistics’ and ‘Poker, Probability, and Everyday Life,’ deals with the various tricks often used to mislead with statistics, the latter a good primer for the beginner on statistical math — very easy to understand.

No. 19 is about Decision Theory, the study of how we as individuals make rational choices and how we may make them better and more reliably. Interestingly, the origin of decision theory in the formulation of Pascal’s wager is discussed, and both the pros and a few of the cons of the argument are noted.

The next, ‘Thinking Scientifically,’ deals with the process of scientific thinking, the nature of science and its relation to pseudo-science, the need for falsification when testing ideas against the real world as general claims. Methods are given for distinguishing good science from bad, and merely bad science from pseudo-science.

‘Put It to the Test — Beautiful Experiments,’ is a talk about backing our own factual claims and evaluating those of others though experimentation. It deals with the structure of the processes we use in testing claims, such things as blinding, double-blinding, randomization of samples in controlled experiments, and the limits of experimentation.

‘Game Theory and Beyond’ is about the study of social rationality as a mathematical model, it’s advantages, benefits, and limits on it, on what both is and what should be rational behavior of groups. Dating from the beginning of the Cold War, and developed by John von Neumann, this field was uses simulated games to assess different strategies for personal, and national, interactions.

Lecture 23, ‘Thinking with Models’ is about the combination of visualization, simplifying, and thought experiments using rules to determine an outcome from a beginning input, and how especially with computers this is a powerful method for predicting, explaining, and simulating the past — retrodiction.

In no. 24 ‘Lessons from the Great Thinkers,’ the series concludes with those who used, conceived, or added to the techniques described and explained in earlier lectures, sort of a wrap-up of what has come before, and hints of what may come in future to clever thinkers yet unknown.

I almost felt regret at reaching the final lecture, but as in any good course, it spurs looking and learning still further. Then again, that’s why I take these courses.

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Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies [by Lynne Kelly]

4019efd44b4995786942be96be002a01I’ve recently finished my first read of this book, written by Dr. Lynne Kelly, and a scholarly well-sourced work it is!

It lays out a theory concerning the nature of certain archaeological findings, with no pseudoscience or other nonsense given serious attention, and those mentioned only in passing. It’s a theory that draws analogies between the use of mnemonic technologies in modern non-literate (very, very different from being illiterate in literate societies) cultures, and the same use, with many commonalities across cultures, of those technologies to build and maintain sophisticated bodies of cultural and, yes, scientific knowledge.

The general idea is that power is, and likely was in prehistoric periods, held by elites who maintain that power without apparent coercion or obvious material wealth by restricting the use and preservation of  knowledge using monuments, story, song, ritual, and dance, art, and small material objects as mnemonic foci, like rock art and carved stone balls or baked clay items that may be hand-held.

This includes those societies often thought to be egalitarian in nature, often mistakenly so, in which elders hold authority by dint of their monopoly on restricted knowledge attainable only by initiation.

Using as case studies such monuments as Stonehenge, Poverty Point, Chaco canyon, and contemporary traditionally non-literate cultures, such as indigenous Australian cultures, African secret societies, and the Pueblo cultures of the American southwest, the case is made, I think, and with much left open for discussion and discovery, that prehistoric cultures would need a wide, robust body of knowledge in order to survive. Such cultures simply would not have done so without mnemonic transmission of that knowledge allowing it to span generations without the benefit of writing, using mostly fallible human memory and memory foci.

Our ancestors were no dummies, or we just wouldn’t be here today to study them. Living in a dangerous world without modern science or written records requires a vast body of lore, especially of the natural world and societal laws.

I found this book entertaining, informative, and very conducive to a further, deeper, closer, and better look at the archaeological record than perhaps has been done so far, with so much more to discover to flesh out the data and answer remaining questions suggested therein.

Well done, Dr. Kelly! Good stuff.

Review | Isolation and Other Stories: by S.A. Barton

I’ve recently re-read this collection of stories by S. A. Barton, and thought I’d share my impressions of it, with its general theme of aloneness in the many worlds of SF.

A disclosure: Mr. Barton and I go a long way back to the now-defunct gaming shop where he coined my eldritch moniker. I’m posting this review because I like the stories, but I have no financial stake in this, and that’s how it should be. As someone who knows Mr. Barton, I’m likely a bit biased, but I’ll keep this review as fair as possible. I’ll not gush.

First, though, the stories…


In a world where everyone who’s anyone has a digital presence online, identity theft can be horrendous. In spades. Cue to our protagonist, Richard, whose troubles begin with the simple failure of a delivery order, and quickly snowball into personal disaster as his financial accounts are mysteriously hacked, leaving him among the millions of penniless and homeless in this dystopia of the Internet, and ultimately joining a revolution against those who made his predicament necessary…


An asteroid traveling at close to the speed of light enters the solar system, slowing down and landing on Earth. This first-contact quickly goes bad as the aliens make no attempt to communicate, and soon begin to proliferate all over the planet, annihilating humans wherever they go and threatening to eradicate us. But in the one lonely part of the world the aliens have yet to go, a final bastion of hope for the human species is in the making…

The Flowers of Dawn:

Elaina Hirschbaum is a diplomat of Earth to the benevolent alien Helf Wanas. Her alien counterpart Eschavel Wan offers a gift for the gravesite of Elaina’s spouse, Coral. An innocent-looking alien seed, its germination and growth ultimately lead to a first contact with a wholly unexpected form of intelligence…

Turn Me On:

Tom is a soldier, one of the best, who nonetheless falls in the line of duty, but he rises again in an ongoing military experiment in robotic prostheses. He meets his therapist and fellow resurrectee, Dr. Pamela Burrier, who works to help him adjust to his new life, and who has a surprise for both of them, something far beyond the pale of simple brain-pattern uploading, something momentous…

Down On The Farm:

Daniel is a farmer —  not the kind you’re probably thinking of — but a farmer of transplant organs for hire who grows his product within his own body. He runs afoul of a dangerous organ-legging ring and it’s wealthy owners who’ve decided to harvest more from him than what he has to offer, much more than just the spares he grows within him. Along with his friend Deena and their contact Lisbeth, Daniel meets a set of truly vile antagonists worthy of a Bond movie, and an unexpected ally in the form of a reluctant superman…

These were all interesting in terms of story elements that I’ve seen just a bit in his earlier fiction, but used in new ways. The first and last of these tales were a bit longer than is usual for his writing style, but that wasn’t a problem, as there was much packed into these action-wise.

Those sorts of stories tend to require a more detailed treatment no matter the author to carry the fight scenes effectively. This upright hairless primate gives this collection two thumbs up, but that would be more if I were a bonobo.

The Author Online: S.A. Barton

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S. A. Barton: Seriously Eclectic

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The prisoner of Sand Castle (Kindle edition) [by Sharmishtha Basu]

snap26-11-14This is an excellent collection of short fiction with cool Indian themes. I’ve always enjoyed Ms. Basu’s paranormal fiction, and this is no exception! My favorites from this are the collection’s titular story, a chilling piece titled Scarecrow, and The Woman in White, of strange goings on in a nightspot.

Three thumbs up!




For Tagore – rabikare agnishatdal (Kindle Edition) [by Sharmishtha Basu]

snap26-11-14I’ve just completed this, a well-done book dedicated to writer, poet, philosopher, and artist Rabindranath Tagore, in celebration of his birth anniversary by Sharmishtha Basu (at left), who is a much better writer than I.

I love that not only is this a book of poetry and evocative imagery, but also that it’s written in two languages, including one I’m learning while still quite a novice.

I must thank the authoress for this wonderful learning opportunity, and a fitting tribute to the great Bengali polymath himself!